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Letting Go Of The Past By Moving Into A Smaller Home

If you had asked Tony Burr last year whether he and his wife were going to move out of their Tesuque. NM, house, “I’d have said absolutely not,” he says.

But Burr started thinking about the fact that he’s 72 and that at some point, the couple would want to switch to one-story living, and that they did not want to burden their kids with the big old house and sorting through all the belongings they had amassed over the years.

These realizations pressed Burr into action. In December, he and his wife bought a one-story, 1,762-square-foot house to be constructed in the summer at Trilogy at Lake Frederick, a 55-plus community near Winchester, Va.

In mid-February, they moved to a small, two-bedroom rental apartment they are occupying while their new home is built, and they began readying the old house — a four-bedroom, 4,100 square-foot place with two stories, plus full basement and garage — for sale. That meant contending with all the belongings in it.

This transitional period — when shifting from a large home to smaller one; or moving from an old house to a new one and wanting fresh furnishings; or managing the contents of a home while it’s being remodeled — is notoriously daunting. Every item in the house needs a decision — keep it with you; keep it but store it; give it to family or friends; or donate, sell or trash it. And once all the decisions are made, it’s another overwhelming project to carry them out.

Most homeowners accumulate more and more belongings, often not realizing how much — or even what — they have. They delay going through everything until they have to, and then, under pressure to get it done, might keep or toss too much instead of making focused decisions.

Some people get into the groove quickly — often with the help of organizing consultants. Widower Pete Schwartz, for example, plans to move in the fall from his four-bedroom suburban home to a smaller, more urban one that he is in the market to buy.

With the support of Potomac Concierge, a Washington-area company that offers personal assistant, decluttering, organizing and move-management services, he is rolling rapidly and pretty painlessly through the work of getting rid of much of the contents of the suburban house. Potomac Concierge is helping with disposing of, donating, selling or finding new homes for what he is not keeping. “I’m not one to want to save a million things,” says Pete. “I have cleaned a lot of stuff out. It is so liberating.”

But Pete is far from typical. “The average person is like a deer in the headlights” when considering the prospect of sorting and dealing with belongings, says Aida Middel, co-owner of Potomac Concierge. She advises homeowners to “divide and conquer. Take it step-by-step.”

Middel and other home organizers say the process works best when a friend or professional is there to motivate and help. Cheryl Larson of Cheryl’s Organizing Concepts in Clarksburg, Md., agrees. Especially if homeowners are paying a professional to help, they are likely to “take the project seriously” and get the job done efficiently, she says. Libby Kinkead, Potomac Concierge co-owner, says that many new clients comment that they feel more relaxed after a consultation.

The hardest step is often the first one. For Pete, that meant beginning to chip away at the mountain of stuff, including items handed down from relatives, things acquired by four sons when growing up, and curiosities harvested during extensive travel.

“I used to go around the world on business, and would pick up some of the weirdest stuff” to bring back as souvenirs, Burr said. The mountain of belongings also included furniture, books, photos and office supplies. “The basement was filled to the brim. The pool table was stacked high,” Pete said. The two-car garage housed “every tool known to man.”

Pete needed someone to take charge and guide him. Enter Maria White, whose company, Enuff with the Stuff, provides personal organizing and moving help. Pete’s project was “multilayered,” she says, encompassing a general purge of excess belongings; the temporary move to a small, storage-deficient apartment; separate storage of possessions while Pete and his wife lived in the apartment — including some things likely to be used during that time; and a second move to the new house when construction was complete.

White started the weeding-out process by tackling the old house’s storage areas — closets, basement, garage — where many things had sat unused for a long time, and perhaps even forgotten. Item by item, she helped Pete decide what not to keep; what to do with those things; what “keepers” to place in storage when moving out; and what to take to the apartment.

It’s important for helpers to understand the homeowner’s feelings, decision-making style and pace, and to guide the homeowner accordingly during the purging process. Homeowners often have emotional ties to things, Larson said. “People need time if a spouse or parent dies,” for example. “We do our best at such times to [encourage parting with things to] eliminate the need for storage, but we don’t push.”

Over the course of numerous sorting sessions — twice a week at first and then less frequent — White and Pete worked through the process at his house. Pete says White used questions to help him. She would ask whether he wanted to hold onto an item. “I’d say, ‘I want to keep that,’ ” he said. She then would ask, nicely, “How are you going to use this in your new house?” Such questions eased the way for Pete to let go of things. White says she often “acknowledged along the way how hard it is,” to let Weis know that she understood.

Before disposing of things, many homeowners tell their children to take what they want. Kinkead says it’s wise to “touch base with the kids” regarding their mementos from childhood and to be sensitive to their wishes. As for other belongings in the house, get a decision from the kids early in the purging process regarding what they want to have. This saves the expense of moving and perhaps storing items pending a decision. (One Larson client rented a storage locker specifically to hold things while her daughter mulled whether to make them her own.) And disposing of truly unwanted things is doing the kids a favor; as Larson says, “Get rid of it now so your kids don’t have to.”

When considering whether to sell, donate or throw away things, homeowners often assume something is worth more than it is. “They know what they paid for it,” Larson said, but that might have little bearing on demand for it now. Checking online resale sites can provide an idea of what buyers are willing to pay for various categories of things. Rather than selling things for the low price they might command, and perhaps paying to have them picked up or shipped, Kinkead says it might be better to donate them.

“Re-homing” of some items, however, might benefit from the insights of a pro. Pete was ready to give away a lot of costume jewelry, for example. Instead, Potomac Concierge knew it had value and sold it for him at a good price. The company works with buyers who specialize in other things, as well, such as china, silver and even pinball machines.

White tries to match donated items to recipients who can make best use of them. She gave Pete’s large accumulation of office supplies to area schools for use in classrooms. Through a program at Loudoun County schools, she provided paper goods and cleaning supplies for distribution to low-income families. Personal-care items and some nonperishable foods went to low-income senior housing centers. A safety center accepted medications for destruction. Furniture and other household items often are donated to A Wider Circle and other organizations that make such things available to people in need. White says that when homeowners know something is “going to someone who will re-love it all over again, they are happy to let it go.”

After he decided what to keep, donate or throw away, Pete sold most of what remained. Using a selling service took the burden off his shoulders. White connected Pete with Maxsold, a downsizing and estate sale specialist. Within two weeks, the company prepared photos and descriptions of 300 lots of items, ranging from household supplies to the pool table; posted them on its online auction site; sold 95 percent of the lots; and on a single day required all purchases to be picked up by the buyers. A junk removal company took away what was left that could not be put out with the trash.

The key to successful transitioning of homes and belongings is planning. Use a simple floor plan of the new home, with dimensions noted, to determine what furniture will fit.

Label the contents of all boxes to be moved. To keep tabs on things and guide the moving company, White used color coding for Burr’s boxes: She put yellow stickers on boxes to go to the apartment and blue ones on those to go to storage. Make the labeling specific enough to be helpful. Identify contents as, for instance, pots and pans, rather than simply “kitchen.” Boxes destined for the new home can be ranked. Label them by room, Middel says, adding, “kitchen No. 1” to boxes that should be the first to unpack in the new kitchen, and “kitchen No. 2” for boxes that contain less-used items that can be stored away.

If using a self-storage unit, “be strategic,” White said. Set up shelving to keep things organized. Put items that are less needed in the back. Up front, place things more in demand, keep the labels visible and don’t stack too many boxes atop one another. Leave access space. Security Public Storage, a self-storage company with locations in the Washington and Baltimore areas, recommends using large boxes for lightweight items and smaller boxes for heavy things, such as books. The company also suggests storing belongings inside refrigerators, washing machines and other large items. Make a list of the boxes and items to be stored. Larson suggests taking pictures of everything, and even of the storage unit with all in place, “so you can see it at home” and know where to find things when retrieving them.

Pete rented a 10- to 12-foot self-storage unit not far from his apartment. “We make trips to it almost daily to take things in and out,” he says. It functions as an “extra room” for items that won’t fit in the apartment.